State has shortchanged Baltimore City schools

March 14, 2001|By Kalman R. Hettleman

MAYOR MARTIN O'Malley claims credit for recent negotiations with Gov. Parris N. Glendening that will increase state aid to city schools by $55 million. But, in fact, the city will receive only about $5 million more than the governor committed last year.

Worse, the mayor's spin on the negotiations is the latest evidence of political collusion among the mayor, city school board, governor and key legislators to misrepresent an agreement in December that suspended the city's bitter school finance lawsuit against the state.

The extra $5 million, not $55 million as advertised, netted by the city this year is less than a 1 percent increase in the city's $857 million school budget. Further, the remaining $50 million, promised by the governor last year, is clouded by politically fuzzy math. The city would be due much of that money independently of the lawsuit.

Even the inflated total of $55 million is a small down payment on the state's legal obligation. Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph Kaplan ruled last year the school system is entitled to about $250 million more. An independent evaluation firm put the cost at about $270 million.

So why have the mayor and the city school board agreed to suspend the lawsuit for so much less money? First and foremost, because Mr. Glendening said take it or leave it. The governor is notorious for shortchanging elementary and secondary education while lavishing funding on higher education.

This session of the General Assembly, he snubbed state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and the interim recommendations of the Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence (the Thornton Commission), which is studying reform of the state's school finance laws. Mr. Glendening provided only meager budget increases for poor schools and students.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman and Del. Howard P. Rawlings, Annapolis powers who have divided loyalties as Baltimore City legislators and statewide chairpersons of the Senate and House budget committees, strongly pushed the city to settle. They said the city should wait and press its case next year after the Thornton Commission issues its final report.

These political factors weighed heavily on the mayor and school board. Still, city officials miscalculated. They surrendered the momentum and legal and moral authority of Judge Kaplan's ruling for a token increase of $5 million. The city could hardly get less targeted additional aid under any circumstances.

Moreover, even if the city had to capitulate, the mayor and school board make a huge mistake in spinning the agreement to make it appear much larger and fairer than it is. That political deceit is expected of the governor and legislative leaders who find a new excuse every year for denying adequate funds for city schools.

But the mayor and school board should tell it like it is. The state is flagrantly violating its constitutional obligation to enable every poor student to meet high state academic standards. And this year's agreement to suspend the city's lawsuit for an additional $5 million does virtually nothing to remedy this injustice.

Kalman R. Hettleman is an education consultant, a former member of the Baltimore City school board and a former state human resources secretary.

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